Dalai Lama opens Senate session with prayer

The Dalai Lama will lead the US Senate in prayer on Thursday as the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader rallies support among leaders of Congress, aides said.

It will mark the first time that the Dalai Lama -- whose activities overseas are strongly opposed by China -- will deliver the prayer that customarily opens each Senate session.

The Nobel Peace Prize winner will later meet leaders of both the Senate and House of Representatives, said Kaydor Aukatsang, a spokesman for the Office of Tibet. A Senate aide confirmed the Dalai Lama's meetings.

Last month, the Dalai Lama, who fled his homeland in 1959 for India amid an abortive uprising against Chinese rule, met President Barack Obama, the fourth consecutive sitting US leader whom the Tibetan leader has seen.

China called the meeting "gross interference" in its internal affairs and summoned a US diplomat, although it has not taken further retaliatory measures. The Dalai Lama's meeting was his third at the White House with Obama, who barred reporters and met the monk inside the executive mansion's residence rather than the Oval Office where he receives dignitaries.

The Dalai Lama, who has officially ceded his political role to a prime minister elected by exiled Tibetans, says he accepts China's rule and is peacefully seeking greater autonomy for the Himalayan region. More than 120 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in recent years to protest what they say is religious, political and cultural oppression.

The White House, in a statement after the meeting with the Dalai Lama, said that Obama expressed "his strong support for the preservation of Tibet's unique religious, cultural, and linguistic traditions and the protection of human rights for Tibetans in the People's Republic of China."

China has described the Dalai Lama as a "wolf in monk's clothing" and accuses him of supporting Tibetan independence despite his statements.

- Support across US spectrum -

The comparatively mild Chinese reaction to Obama's latest meeting with the Dalai Lama contrasts with Beijing's strong pressure on Britain, France and several other countries whose leaders have gone ahead and met the exiled leader.

Congress has been instrumental in pushing for strong US support to the Dalai Lama, who traditionally has enjoyed wide backing across the political spectrum in often polarized Washington.

Last month, the Dalai Lama addressed the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and he has prominent left-leaning supporters such as actor Richard Gere.

After visiting Washington in February, the Dalai Lama delivered lectures in California and celebrated the Losar new year holiday with the Tibetan community in the Midwestern state of Minnesota.

On Friday, the Dalai Lama will address a maximum-capacity crowd at the Washington National Cathedral.

The United States is officially secular, but the Senate has opened each session with a prayer. Senate chaplains have always been Christian but have frequently invited leaders of other faiths to deliver the prayer.

The current chaplain, Barry C. Black, is a Seventh-Day Adventist and the first African American to hold the position.

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